The settled science of 'shut up'
Ronald Reagan famously said, "The trouble with our liberal friends isn't that they're ignorant. It's that they know so much that isn't so." This might be the only thing our friends on the left have in common with yesterday's liberals. The earlier breed at least gave lip service to the value of free speech and vigorous debate.
"Liberalism" was the enemy of truth and clarity throughout the Cold War. Public debate was full of wordplay. Nimbleness of language ruled the day, with liberals parsing their way through the decay of communism 'til they could blame the decadence of capitalism for all the world's woes. It may be why they hated "The Great Communicator" Reagan so much. He beat them at their own game, giving substance to style, facts to flair.
Today's adversary is illiberalism, leftism. Words still matter, for words constitute the building blocks of ideas. Argument suffers as one block after another is made "off limits." Soon enough, entire arguments are forbidden. Today, the subject can be anthropogenic climate change, the veracity of the November 2020 vote, the efficacy of employing certain antimicrobials in treating COVID-19, or whether the Capitol riot of January 6 is better described an armed insurrection or a pitiful flash mob. In each instance, the left loudly insists that the issue is "settled." By that, they mean to say to us, "Shut up."
Elected member of Congress, in fact, maintain that to question their conclusions is nothing less than "disinformation." When the absurdity of their assertion begins to raise eyebrows, they resort to an allegation of mere "misinformation." In either case, however, they contend that the First Amendment does not encompass the speech at hand. This matter, too, is presumably "settled," for debate has been foreclosed on these and a growing number of topics in the public sphere.
For decades, society recognized that "gender dysphoria" was a mental disorder, and for millennia, our forebears intuitively treated (probably mistreated, alas) the afflicted accordingly. But it's 2021, and in much of media, the term itself is forbidden. Those of us who use it are pronounced "hateful," and the president of the United States of America appointed a man who calls himself a woman, "Rachel" Levine, to be assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Worse, by executive fiat, he has presumed to prohibit states from denying males who identify as females from competing with females in sports. This week, a progressive journalist, while pretending to approve of vigorous debate, sought to "shame" others into rejecting the term "biological male" as transphobic. It's okay to disagree, as long as you don't give words to the disagreement.
Newsrooms and classrooms eagerly ban words that give newly discovered offense. Inevitably, the ideas the words conveyed disappear. Libraries and retailers ban the books they're found in. And we have only ourselves to blame. For 30 years, on transgenderism and a host of other issues, we've seen the camel's nose sneak more deeply into the tent, and we looked away, pretending not to notice as its neck, front legs, and prominent torso squeezed into our living quarters. Another three years of Biden-Harris and we'll be wondering why the kids have humps.
Years ago, a "liberal" friend gave me perhaps the most honest criticism I have ever heard about conservatives. "You people are pathologically polite," he said. "We scream and swear and march and chant and all you can do is write a clever letter to the effing editor."
The truth is, it was actually worse than he described it. More often than not, I'd forgo the letter, go for a walk, "take the high road," be the bigger man, and bathe in a sort of perverse satisfaction that comes from certitude alone. Where I would take comfort in my demonstration of patience and maturity, my friend assumed I'd folded up my tent, effectively conceding that the camel owned the lot.
It is a hideous realization, but a corollary to President Reagan's truism might be, "The trouble with us conservatives isn't that we lack backbone. It's that it's difficult for invertebrates to show we have it."
By our nature, conservatives embrace a kind of "good citizenship" mentality that includes a belief that the peacemaker is blessed. Although an evangelical Christian who takes the word of God seriously, it's often hard for me to believe that the meek will inherit a thing. If it were otherwise, the GOP would have owned the whole solar system long before Trump came along.
It's too late (for now, at least) to fight the many battles we tacitly surrendered. We can recover lost ground later. As a litigator and appellate lawyer, I'd never have advised a client at the outset of a case to stake his hopes on the results on appeal. We need to win a battle decisively, even if it's not the decisive battle.
Perhaps we start by agreeing that when "biological male" constitutes hate speech, the boundaries are no longer simply blurred. Linguistic coastal cliffsides have crumbled into the ocean. As the coastline goes, so does the definition of the nation. Failing to protect that is when politeness become cowardice, when good citizenship becomes bad citizenship. It's when peacemaking looks more like surrender.
Ultimately, there's a time for the Sermon on the Mount, and there's a time for calling out the brood of vipers. There's a time for style and diplomacy, and there's a time to tell the other side to shut up. If that's not settled, nothing is.